Webinar 2 - “Scientific illustration: the artistic side of science”

CEBE SciComm · 01-09-2020 10:00 · Webinars

Past 30th of June, the second webinar from the series “Translating knowledge: the world of scientific communication and illustration” took place online. In “Scientific illustration: the artistic side of science”, we had three superb professionals who, despite their different career trajectories, ended up doing what they loved the most and showed it to us.

Cirenia Arias (@cireniasketches, freelance scientific illustrator and postdoc research assistant)

For me, scientific illustration is about solving communication problems, finding bridges for communication.

Gil Costa (@GilCostaDesign, freelance Scientific Designer and Illustrator)

For me, visual science communication (especially for scientists) has to do with clarity, salience, flow and visual impact.

Miriam Rivera (@miriamriig, scientific illustrator at Biomiics)

For me, illustration is a powerful tool to communicate things that you cannot sometimes communicate with words: our minds work with images and imagination, and words are not enough to explain complex concepts. This is the magic of illustration.

Did you miss it? Don’t worry, you can (re)enjoy it here!

Do you want all the information in a nutshell! Then check out the summaries that one of the attendees to the webinar and scientific illustrator, Judith Du Faux (from Visualgarden), made.

Due to time limitations, some of the questions from the attendees could not be answered but our speakers tried to answer them nonetheless:

Were you shy at the beginning to share your work? How did you overcome this fear?

Cirenia: I am still very shy about it, actually, but the eagerness to share what you do with the world is more powerful, so you get over it. Some people will love it, some people will not like it at all. And that is OK because not everyone has to love everything; the same way you do not love everybody's work. The same way rejection and things not going well are parts of a scientist’s life (when applying for grants or experiments not going well), rejection or people not liking an illustration or a client not fancying an idea of yours is part of the process. You have to take constructive criticism and learn and improve your work. Learn from the good feedback and also for the 'bad' feedback, which is actually sometimes more useful than the compliments.  

Do you have any advice about how to simplify complex scientific concepts into illustrations?

Cirenia: For me it is an iterative process of thinking what is the key message, and how can you transmit that. Sometimes the solution to this problem comes fast, others you have to go through trying several ways until you find the most appropriate one. The more you do this, the more you will be more trained into it and it will become more natural for you.

Gil: Choose what to ignore, what you need as background and what you need to make salient. Sometimes only skimming once through the information given to you (eg. a full paper, or an abstract) is what you need to extract the most relevant message. Sometimes you need a double check. But I don’t think digging too much will leave out the unnecessary details.

Miriam: document, document and document. Until you do not fully understand what you are talking about, you will not be able to explain it in a simple way, i.e. to separate the straw from the grain so that you highlight the important concept without getting lost in the details. There is a quote generally attributed to Einstein that reads: “If I cannot draw it, it is because I do not understand it”.

As a freelance, how is the process of a commission with a client? In terms of meetings (one to one, emails), hours of work, how to discuss the costs… any advice on the market standards or how to get started?

Cirenia: Every client is different. I try to create a standard workflow to be more efficient, but sometimes you have to adapt yourself a bit to the client. I always try to have personal meetings where I can meet the client better and make the client-illustrator relation more personal and then discuss everything there. About budget, if you really have no clue about how much your work is worth (which is very normal in the beginning), talk to other people doing the same, make some research, you can even look online for discussion forums, illustrators associations blogs, listen to illustrators podcasts, etc. You can even find digital tools online to calculate your pricing based in your costs, materials, office, hours, etc. In the end, I would say you learn by doing.

Gil: Time for me is the currency of work. I normally charge by the hour of work as I think that is the fairest between you and the client. You will just need to know how much you value your lifetime spent executing your work and how much added value your skills bring to what you are doing. With practice you can get to know how long you take to do some type of assignment. I have a spreadsheet with many rows where I document how many hours it takes me to do each assignment - X hours for a graphical abstract, x hours for a cover etc. Then you just multiply this with the hourly fee. There are other views on this - you can charge by the day, or month, or you can charge by each assignment. Do whatever you are comfortable negotiating and, most importantly, whatever makes you have a comfortable life. Above all, do not sell yourself short as you are most likely hurting yourself, and the community, for no good reason.

How important do you find social media in your work? Does a larger social media presence = regular commissions/work?

Cirenia: In the start of my career, social media meant basically everything because it was where I started exposing my work. It is still a very strong pillar of my job as illustrator and science communicator. Here is an important piece of advice: do not forget about a very old-fashioned but unbeatable way of getting clients: happy clients talking.

Gil: I think most of my commissions come from word of mouth recommendations and people finding my webpage. A small subset is now coming directly from Twitter or LinkedIn as those are the social media channels I am getting more present at, although I could be much more active for sure. I choose to portray my work in those social media as my clients most likely are more active on those. And in those I totally separate my work from other aspects of life. All in all, it sure feels nice to get some likes, but so far my relation between likes and commissions is not linear.

Miriam: Social networks are very important to showcase your work and make sure that they know it, but it is important to understand that “like”, “follower” or “web visit” is not the same as “commissioned job”. Your work should reach the right people and, therefore, through the channels they are in. For example, do you think a 40-year-old research group leader will have a TikTok profile? Or if you have thousands of followers but all of them are students, how many of them can afford to commission a design? This does not mean that you need to veto your content to anyone that is not a potential client, because we are here to make sure science can be understood by everyone. But it does mean that, if your goal is to have images commissioned because you make your living out of it and you cannot pay bills with “likes”, you should keep in mind to search for and address those who can actually hire you.

How many illustrations do you do per month?

Gil: It varies, I am constantly working on something. Maybe 1-3 projects per week, while trying to take at least 2 days off per week. There are assignments which are short, less than 5 hours, 5-10 hours and then long-term projects that evolve with many more iterations and time.

Miriam: It all depends on the illustration type. If it is a simple design, it can take me two days. If it is a comic (for myself) that does not require a lot of documentation, it may take me a week. If it is a comic for a client (and therefore there are several rounds of feedback) it can take me a month, or even longer if I am not very familiar with the topic. Normally the time it takes to develop a comic or the number of comics per month depends more on the documentation phase than on drawing itself.

How do you get clients when you become a freelancer? Any tips apart from networking?

Gil: Care for your network, so if you come from a scientific background make sure that network knows you are now an illustrator. Prepare a couple of classes that you can teach, this will make you be known in different institutes. Care for the quality of your work, always, as your portfolio will be what brings people to work with you ultimately. And don’t forget that you do this job to help your clients the best you can. And this means many times having to deal with tight deadlines. Because of that, I avoid rejecting commissions even if that makes me have to work a bit harder (except during vacations, which are sacred for me ;) ).

Miriam: 1) Go to SciComm events and do networking. Express interest in the speakers talks, ask them about them, introduce yourself and what you do, ask their contact details and write to them a couple of days later so that they remember you.

2) Give talks or workshops about what you do and how does it impact science.

3) For you to be invited to do so, you will have had to develop a reputation as an expert on the field first. To do so, you need to work on your personal branding (this is something you will always have to work on, constantly): write about what you do, about scientific reports related to your field of expertise, write on blogs from other experts on your field so that you can expand your visibility, publish your work in your web and social networks, make sure that it is perfectly clear that you offer a service as a professional (do not let people think that you draw as a hobby), interact with people that works in the same as you do (if you collaborate, there are times that they cannot accept a work and they may pass it on to you and viceversa) or that belong to your target audience. Creating this expert reputation also means focussing on one thing: for example, I am an expert on scientific comics (not regular comics, not scientific images or posters). This does not mean at all that if someone commissions you a different type of design that it is not in your area of expertise, you have to reject it.

When you work illustrating a scientific paper or project, do you show your work as a "draft", "proposal" or partially finished job to the author of the job in order to discuss it?

Cirenia: I normally do (except in the cases that I am very aware I have total freedom). Showing drafts and sketches of the ideas can save you lots of time of work invested in a piece that you don't know if it will make it!

Gil: Maybe I write a paragraph of the initial idea that I intend to follow and then get back to the client at ⅔ of the way with the visual. So I normally show them a first version at 70% of expected finished work, then we work to 100% over some iterations. I tend not to sketch as I don’t find I am good at transmitting my ideas with preliminary material, and then it becomes a bit of a mess when the client starts focusing on things that you are not at all committed at, like colors or badly drawn placeholders, instead of the general picture that you are aiming to discuss at early stages.

Miriam: Of course, I never show the final work from the beginning because there are many details to finetune. I normally report my progress to the client at the end of any of these phases: 1) Main message and synopsis; 2) Technical script; 3) Draft; 4) Final image. In each of the phases, the client sends me the comments/corrections/suggestions and I implement them. Until the client is not satisfied, I do not move on to the next phase (I normally limit the correction iterations so that the clients looks into detail to what I sent: better one correction with everything that 200, one per detail – otherwise it becomes a neverending process). Imagine that, after developing a full comic strip, the client does not like the storyline and you need to start from scratch again!

Did you struggle to reach the point where you have enough work to switch to be a full-time illustrator?

Gil: It took me some 3 years to understand this world and a lot of careful step-by-step moves into jumping to full-time illustrator. From volunteering to do design work while being a scientist, so to generate portfolio and for people to get to know me, to working full time in a science communication office, to have time to improve, network , learn new skills, increase portfolio and get a variety of different commissions, then working outside normal work, after-hours, as a freelancer, to start understanding certain bureaucracies, financial aspects, flow of clients and how long do the assignments take to finish. Only when I was sure I could pay rent and still have money for food with the amount of predicted commissions I jumped fully into freelancing. If I had not got confident beforehand that this was feasible at a basic income level, the anxiety of taking the risk would have made my life very hard, even if I would be doing what I like the most.

Miriam: Nowadays, I do not work full time as an illustrator. I work half time at the Catalonian Association for Science Communication (ACCC) as technical secretary and communication responsible. The other half of the time I devote to the comics. For me, I already consider this point a big achievement because only three years ago I was working half time for ACCC and half time for an educational project called ACIERTAS, also half time (meaning I would then design comics during my nights and weekends). After following a marketing course for freelance creatives and applying what I learnt in this course, besides what I had learnt from pasts experiences, I improved my client flux in such a way that I could drop one of those jobs to focus on the comics. In any case, it was a hard path and every little thing counts (the effort, money and time invested; the hurdles you overcome, the quality of your work, the contacts you make, the support of family, friends and collaborators…). This is definitely something that does not come easily or that you can achieve alone.

How do you get in touch with universities, researchers…?

Miriam: I do not normally send emails to universities or researchers explaining my work. This is called “cold calling” and requires a lot of effort for little or no benefit (compared to a commissioned work). However, publishing my work, experiences and knowledge, especially in Linkedin, worked much better for me. Here, I try to focus on the usefulness of a comic format to researchers, communicators and scientific marketing experts and applying storytelling to my own or client experiences, if possible. These professionals discover your posts, and if you are constant, they start contacting you (not necessarily to commission a work), but they already know that you exist and the service that you provide. Moreover, if they recommend your posts, similar profiles will discover you as well. Giving talks or teaching workshops is helpful too, since there can be people who discover you and might come back to you for a design in the future. Networking in life events works well too, because you have the option to talk to them directly.

How do you differentiate yourself from a regular graphic designer?

Gil: I very quickly understand what my clients want and what they need, as I “speak” the scientific language. I also know the scientific community vibe, goals, and affordances, so I can empathise well with what they want. So this saves a lot of time in a project. At the same time, I keep track of the artistic and design trends and inspirations so that I can try to bring the best of that world into science communication. Also, I take this job as a “mission”, a personal pursuit for improving how science communicates visually. All summed up, I think these reassure my scientific clients that we are on the same team - for science. And that might not be the case for many “regular” designers who might face commissions of scientific communication the same way they would face a commission for a new soda or shoe brand. For me the “mission” is important.

Miriam: In my case, what I draw (scientific comics) is already not very common especially in Spain, so it catches people’s attention. Even then, there are other known professionals who do it too and, eventually, what differentiates you from the rest is your work and yourself. I have a very characteristic personality, background, tone, communication technique, drawing style, format… They do not need to be better or worse than anyone else, just different. You should reflect and ask yourself what makes you special, and when you do, you have to show it, be constant and make sure that the right people notice it too. This requires hard work and there are diverse methods to approach it (social networks, events, networking, web, email, marketing…). What is more, when two similar services are offered, the client will choose those with whom it has a “connection” and there will be times where this “connection” will be more important that money.

Ten years ago, when I was a student, it was said that scientific illustration and popularization did not pay; why is it that today there is an increase in interest in these disciplines?

I was wondering about the perception you see from the scientific community on spending budget in hiring a scientific illustrator. What kind of labs/PIs usually hire scientific illustrators?

Gil: Many labs, especially from high-level research institutes, look for improving visual communication of their science. And it has been part of a normal evolution, in some sort of positive feedback loop. As many more good science design becomes available and coming out in good publications, more the demand for good visual will be the “status quo”. You can compare the publications in high impact journals 10 years ago and now and quickly you can see that scientists are taking into more consideration how to better portray their data, ideas and protocols.

Also, funding agencies are realising that they need to support the communication of the science they fund, not only between scientists but also between scientists and the taxpayers or philanthropists that support those agencies. This is a trend which is part of many open science initiatives and the so called RRIs (Responsible Research and Innovation) views in Europe, for instance. So, all in all, well-funded scientists and scientific institutions will have the culture, the will, and the means, and will feel the obligation to have scientific visual communication that reflects their excellence.

Miriam: I am not able to tell whether in the last years the interest has increased or whether some of us we have discovered it, maybe thanks to social networks, and we are now more sensitive to the information on this topic. But this does not mean that there was not interest before. Already in the time of the big discoveries, scientific illustration was crucial to register the new species that were found. We can find examples of illustrators like Alexander Von Humboldt or Maria Sibylla Merian or communicators like Carl Sagan or Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, among many others. When we were kids, we already watched cartoons like “Once upon a time…”. As I said, it is possible that Internet and social networks allows a lot of illustrators to showcase their work and, therefore, we can perceive an increase in SciComm and science illustration activities. Moreover, many scientific institutions and research centers started to employ full time several years ago people, one or two people at least, to handle their science communication. It is true that the idea that communication impacts the reputation, visibility and impact of scientific research and, therefore, in the financing and collaborating options of researchers is sinking in now more than ever. It is becoming so important that in a lot of grant and subsidies applications are now asking to explain your communication plan for the project.

Do you think journals should incorporate infographics and other illustrations to boost their visibility?

Gil: Yes, and they are already doing it for instance pushing forward with requests for graphical abstracts, having editorial illustrations for some opinion pieces, and good diagrams for previews. I expect that more journals will start adopting interactive data exploration in their papers (the Scientific Paper of the Future already) as well as motion graphics to highlight specific research.

Miriam: Obviously. We retain better the information that we “see” than the one we read, images capture better our attention and they are able to synthetize and communicate complex ideas, making them easily understandable to everyone (general public, other scientists and future investors). In fact, there are plenty of studies in this topic. This one, for example, explains that "compared to title only tweets, those with a visual abstract had 7-fold higher impressions, 8-fold higher retweets and nearly a 3-fold higher article visits on the publisher website".

What could journals do to encourage enthusiasts to engage by illustrating papers? (contests, internships...?)

Miriam: In fact, a lot of scientific journals encourage the authors to submit graphical abstracts and use them to increase the visibility and citations of the articles. Contests and grants could also be good options and anything that benefits researchers (money, visibility, promotion, attending to conferences, CV improvement…) should encourage them.

Once again, we would like to thank our wonderful speakers for sharing their work, their experience and the advice with us and we look forward to seeing you in the next CEBE webinar!


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This blog is supported by the Arts and Culture section of the Spanish Embassy in Belgium and by the Brussels section of the “Instituto Cervantes”, under the SciComm initiative #SPreadScience.

Instituto Cervantes Arts and Culture section of the Spanish Embassy

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